King would hold hearings on air cargo safety as Homeland Security chairman

After a recess scare in which terrorists exposed a gaping homeland-security vulnerability, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee is planning to hold a hearing on security procedures for U.S.-bound cargo as one of his first moves if he becomes chairman of the panel next year, as he hopes.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) told The Hill that when Republicans take control of the House next year, the Homeland Security panel will take a detailed look at the screening protocols the U.S. has in place for inbound cargo, in an attempt to eliminate weaknesses in the current system that could jeopardize national security. The move comes in the wake of the foiled package bombings two weeks ago.

"I intend to schedule a coordinated and detailed hearing on air cargo very early in the next Congress," said King, who added that Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is still the chairman of the committee and in charge of its schedule.

A spokeswoman for the committee’s Democrats told The Hill on Friday that Thompson has not scheduled any hearings for the lame-duck session set to begin this week. In the days following the thwarted attacks, Thompson called for the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), to produce a study for the committee on the progress and challenges of screening and securing U.S.-bound cargo.

Next Tuesday the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing looking into air cargo security, in which senators plan to hear testimony from John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, and Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

King has been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s security policies, such as when the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) failed to identify key details that could have prevented the attempted bombing aboard a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas. But in the aftermath of the attempted package bombings last month, King commended U.S. intelligence and security officials for connecting the dots before harm could be done.  

In an interview last week, King told The Hill that as chairman he would push for more rigorous oversight of DHS on the panel and that he believed the committee had not done an adequate job in fulfilling its role in that regard.

Just days before the midterm elections, a group of international law enforcement authorities foiled an attempted bombing after they discovered two packages originating from Yemen with explosive components destined for the U.S. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken responsibility for the plot, according to media reports.

In the wake of the attempted attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the U.S. was adding a layer of security to its rules for cargo on passenger aircraft, which banned “high-risk cargo” including large ink cartridges like the ones used to conceal the PETN explosive last month.